Author(s) : Jack Simmons, Leigh E. Rich
While opportunities for women have changed greatly in society, particularly with regard to education and employment, women on TV remain trapped in the usual stereotypes.
In particular, women in today’s situational comedies seem to be forced into one of two roles: a sex object (with no real story of her own) or a straight-laced nag, even at times “monstrously” so. And there is little middle ground in between, suggesting that female characters on TV haven’t kept pace with women’s real lives.
This is a finding from research conducted by Jack Simmons and Leigh E. Rich from Armstrong State University, published in Advances in Journalism and Communication 2013 vol.1 by Scientific Research Publishing. Simmons and Rich explored the top-rated U.S. sitcoms from 1952 to 2004 in order to examine whether and how the depiction of women and mothers in popular television has changed since the inception of this medium. Their sample included much-loved programs such as I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, All in the Family, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, Home Improvement, Seinfeld and Friends.
Their analysis indicates that, regardless of the progressive nature of some programming, the most-watched sitcoms reaffirm mainstream stereotypes of women. Rather than real “role revolution,” where women take on a variety of characters and personalities that have long been available for men, what has occurred is a “role reversal”—and a superficial one at that. Where once television women were childlike subordinates to their male counterparts (think Lucy Ricardo or Edith Bunker in All in the Family), now men are depicted as irresponsible children women must mother and discipline.
And in this hierarchical transformation, women have been stripped of their sense of humor and capacity for fun (a curious thematic development in sitcoms). In this television evolution, women have become overbearing “mother” figures and mothers overblown nags.
While the proliferation of television (and other) channels has provided room for alternative modes of visual expression, and no doubt some have succeeded, mainstream sitcoms have interpreted the women’s movement by portraying women with access to resources such as education, meaningful employment, and power—within as well as beyond the household—as “fun-killers.” An increase in civil rights and participation in all forms of capital, then, has come at a price for television’s woman, simultaneously demonized for encroaching into traditionally masculine roles and now held responsible for the childish antics of their male counterparts.
Given the importance of women’s ongoing contributions in family life and increasing leadership in the workplace, there is a need to expand television narratives and roles for women that go beyond traditional stereotypes of saint vs. “Satan.”
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